ATLANTA (Reuters) - Newt Gingrich appears likely to win the Republican presidential primary in his home state of Georgia on Tuesday but his plan to launch a wider “Southern Strategy” to recover his front-runner status looks less of a sure thing.
Gingrich spent much of the last week campaigning on his home turf while main rivals Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney concentrated on trying to win Ohio in the runup to “Super Tuesday,” when 10 states hold Republican nominating contests.
A poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed Gingrich well ahead of his competitors in Georgia, with 38 percent of likely Republican voters indicating they plan to vote for him.
“The polling says that he’s ahead. It doesn’t say that it’s a landslide,” said Georgia Republican Party Chairwoman Sue P. Everhart. “I think all of them will get something.”
With nine other states also for the taking, Gingrich will need more than a Peach State victory to ignite his campaign, which reached a height with his win in South Carolina’s January 21 primary, but has fallen since he lost heavily to Romney in Florida 10 days later.
“This is probably the only state where he’ll take first on Super Tuesday,” said Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint, a former Republican strategist. “I don’t think it’s going to take him very far.”
Gingrich hopes a Georgia victory will kick off his Southern Strategy of taking Alabama and Mississippi on March 13 and coming back into the race as the conservative rival to Romney, a
former governor of Massachusetts.
But a February poll by Alabama State University showed Gingrich and Santorum running neck and neck in Alabama with around 18 percent each. Twenty-eight percent of Republican voters were undecided.
The victor in Alabama will be determined more by how aggressively the candidates seek out votes than how Georgia decides, said Bill Armistead, Alabama’s Republican Party chairman.
“We’re independent folks here,” he said. “I would suspect that it’s going to be a pretty close race between the top three.”
Larry Cliett, 65, an independent insurance agent who lives in Pheba, Mississippi, said how Gingrich fares in Tuesday’s contests won’t factor into his voting decision next week.
“I don’t really care what state Newt wins,” said Cliett, who is undecided. “I don’t vote based on how people in other states vote.”
That, coupled with opponent Rick Santorum’s stronger poll numbers in the conservative states of Tennessee and Oklahoma, which also hold contests Tuesday, leave some questioning whether Gingrich’s Southern-focused comeback strategy has legs.
Veteran Republican strategist Mark McKinnon said Georgia is a must-win for the former U.S. House speaker. But what comes next will more likely be another long slog than a surge.
“Georgia won’t launch him anywhere,” McKinnon said. “It will just keep him in play.”
Georgia has 76 delegates up for grabs, the most of any state on Tuesday, but the party’s system of divvying up votes among the top finishers likely will cut into Gingrich’s share.
Gingrich on Sunday predicted a third surge fueled by what he said would be a “decisive victory” in Georgia, where he based his national campaign headquarters though he lives in Virginia.
He attended high school and college in Georgia and represented it for two decades in Congress.
He said he expected to do well in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio and showed no signs of planning to bow out even if he finishes third overall on Super Tuesday behind former Romney and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator.
“I think that there’ll be basically Santorum and Romney in the lead, me in the third place but coming back and gaining ground,” Gingrich said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman and Robbie Ward